Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Sara Collins, LAT, ATC, CPT
What do you consider your running muscles? First thought likely goes to your quads and calves, right? You know you feel those when you run. Hamstrings and hip flexors? Yup, those get pretty tight after a run. Core muscles have gotten a lot of attention in literature and the media so bet those are pretty important too. Are we forgetting anything? The answer is right behind you…
IT’S YOUR GLUTES! But wait, you don’t feel them when you run? That’s a problem.
As mentioned in my first Salute, the gluteals consist of three different muscles to create one powerhouse complex. Glute max is responsible for hip extension; glute medius abducts, extends, and externally rotates the hip as well as provides stability to the pelvis; and glute minimus controls hip internal rotation.
The glutes team up with other muscles to support the movements in running. Glute max and hamstrings work together to extend the hip and propel you forward, and are antagonistic muscles to the hip flexors. The glutes are working in a lengthening fashion to support the hip flexors when they shorten or contract during hip flexion of the knee drive phase. They also reinforce the abdominal, hip, back, and pelvic floor muscles to provide postural support and pelvic stability, including your ability to stand upright and on one leg (which is a big deal because you are always on one leg when you’re running). To top it off, this muscle group also helps with knee and foot alignment, completing the whole running package.
In running, a lack of glute strength and neuromuscular control translates into overstepping (when the foot extends beyond the knee on landing), low knee drive, anterior pelvic tilt (pelvis drops forward), pelvic drop (hip drops to the side), crossover (when one foot lands in front of the other; if you kick your knees/ankles when running – this is you), and a lack of hip extension causing a forward lean at the hips, overuse of the hip flexors, calves, and hamstrings. These improper mechanics, in-turn, cause verticality (when you translate your energy up instead of forward), increase your landing load rate (you’re already landing with 1.5-2x your body weight even if you have ideal running form), and slows your cadence (slowing you down, making you less energy efficient and increasing your chances of injury).
Despite having a lot of responsibilities for your overall ability to stand up and move, these muscles are often REALLY lazy. They are notorious kinetic chain disruptors, meaning if they don’t do their job something else has to take up the slack leading to movement dysfunction and ultimately injury. Glute dysfunction in runners has been connected to several common running injuries including:
shin injuries and fractures
calf pain and Achilles tendinitis
plantar fasciitis and other foot injuries
hip flexor tightness/overuse and other hip muscular and bone injuries
IT band pain and tightness
low back pain
Can you see the correlation between the repetition of poor movement patterns and the injuries listed?
BUT(T) why are the glutes so lazy? Because they don’t get a lot of action throughout the day! Most of us are sitting in school or at work 8 hours a day (throw in a long commute and up that number to 10 hours per day). Even consistent exercisers who sit for long periods create the opportunity to be very flexion-based, naturally shortening the hip flexors and pectorals and decreasing the activation and efficacy of our core and glutes.
Here are a few easy ways to check in and see if you have a snoozin’ seat:
Simple glute activation: Lay down on your stomach or stand up. Place a hand on each glute. Squeeze one side and hold for 3 seconds, relax, then the other side, then both. Don’t let the hips tuck under. Did they feel the same? Was one side harder to contract than the other? Did you feel the contraction in another place besides your glute (back of your leg, low back, front of your hip)?
Single leg balance in knee drive position: Stand on one leg with the opposite knee at hip height, bend your knee so your heel is the same height as your standing knee. See if/how long you can hold your balance for. If you couldn’t or felt your hip, knee, or trunk drop, we’ve got a problem.
Donkey kick: Lay on your stomach with a pillow under your hips. Hug your legs together so you can feel your thighs or knees touch, then bend one knee. Squeeze your butt and lift your knee off the ground without letting your hips come off the pillow. Do you still feel your thighs touching? Do you feel your glute fire? Lower the knee down without letting the knee “clunk” to the ground. Could you do it? Try 5-10 reps.
So, how do we fix dysfunction? Get some help! If you are a runner and noticing that certain areas get sore during/after a run, running is feeling like more of an effort than it should be, or if you could write a book about your injury history, a gait analysis would be a great place to start. This way we can analyze your run, see if you demonstrate any compensatory movements, and offer recommendations on how to improve your movement efficiency. And I bet you can guess what we’ll start with first…